UNITED NATIONS – Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Friday agreed to a one-day delay in the arrival of a U.N. team to probe Israel's military assault on the Jenin refugee camp, allowing time for Israel's Cabinet to vote on it.
Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres asked Annan to postpone the arrival of the three-member team from Saturday until Sunday night because of the Jewish Sabbath, Undersecretary-General Kieran Prendergast said. The Sabbath began Friday evening and ends at sundown on Saturday.
The Israeli Cabinet will take a formal decision on the mission at a meeting on Sunday morning, Prendergast said.
According to Security Council diplomats, Prendergast reported to the council that Israel's U.N. Ambassador Yehuda Lancry said the Cabinet had "informally agreed" to let the mission proceed, but the formal decision could not take place until after the Sabbath.
"We expect this time schedule to be observed," said Russia's U.N. Ambassador Sergey Lavrov, the current Security Council president
Israel gave a green light to a fact-finding mission last Friday, saying it had "nothing to hide." But after Annan announced the members of the team on Monday, Israel asked for a delay to seek changes in its composition and mandate.
The Palestinians accuse the Israeli army of a massacre of civilians during eight days of fighting which left part of the Jenin camp in rubble. Israel says its army fought intense gunbattles with Palestinian gunmen, who were the main victims, stressing that 26 suicide bombers came from Jenin.
Annan insisted that he wanted the fact-finding mission in the Middle East by Saturday, but he agreed to a U.N.-Israeli meeting.
After initial talks on Thursday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office issued a statement saying the session did not produce the clarifications sought by Israel on the mission's composition and the mandate.
A diplomat said Israel was concerned that the United Nations was unwilling to add any additional full members to the team, only advisers, a key demand of Sharon who was showing no signs of backing down.
Israel insists that the fact-finding group include more military and counter-terrorism experts, that it investigate Palestinian terrorism in the Jenin camp as well as the military incursion, that the probe be limited to Jenin, and that both sides agree on a framework for the team's activities.
Israel also wanted to ensure that the team just finds out the facts and doesn't draw any conclusions, said Israel's Ambassador to Ireland Mark Sofer, who is acting as a government spokesman in Jerusalem. Diplomats said Israel is concerned that any conclusions could be used in possible legal action against its soldiers.
Diplomats said Prendergast told the council that Friday's talks were "pretty positive," though details have not been disclosed.
"Given the circumstances of the Sabbath, the secretary-general has agreed to a request by the foreign minister of Israel that the team should postpone its arrival until Sunday evening," Prendergast said.
Egypt's U.N. Ambassador Ahmed Aboul Gheit called it "a delay of technical reasons," but he accused the Israelis of "trying to play games."
Arab nations have introduced a new Security Council resolution demanding that Israel and the Palestinians "cooperate fully with the fact-finding team" but they held up acting on it, pending Sunday's decision of the Israeli Cabinet.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called Sharon on Friday and told him the United States hoped the United Nations and Israel would work things out "as soon as possible so the mission can proceed," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington.
On Monday, Annan appointed three team members — former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari; Cornelio Sommaruga, a former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross; and Sadako Ogata, the former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Diplomats said the Israelis wanted Sommaruga removed. The Red Cross refuses to recognize Israel's Star of David, so Israel is not a member of the International Committee
Israel pressed for the mission's military adviser, retired U.S. Maj. Gen. William Nash, to be a full member of the team. On Thursday, the United Nations added two additional military officers to the mission — but Nash has not been made a full team member.